Earlier this month university history professors issued a scathing report, commissioned by the Texas Higher Education Board, on the recently adopted curriculum guidelines for the teaching of history in Texas high schools. (You will find the report here:
Led by Professor Keith Erekson of the University of Texas at El Paso, the authors of this report found a major gap between the standards set by the State Board of Education and the expectations of college readiness set by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. “Because the standards for secondary education (TEKS) fail to meet the state’s college readiness standards (CCRS), students–and the teachers who teach them, and those seeking to become teachers—are left facing a gap between the state’s secondary curriculum and the realities of the college learning experience,” says the report.
Professor Erekson and company note that the process of revising the state curriculum standards for social studies started out with a stated commitment to link them to college-readiness criteria. “However,” Erekson writes, “midway through the process the publicly elected board of education abandoned its committees (composed of practicing educators) and its expert reviewers (some of whom were trained historians and college professors). Over the course of eight months, the lawyers and realtors and dentist on the board made hundreds of changes to the standards. As the politicians squabbled over the politics of who should be in or out, they tacitly adopted a bi-partisan agreement to ignore principles of sound pedagogy. In 2011 the Fordham Institute awarded the 2010 TEKS an overall grade of D, characterizing them as ‘a politicized distortion of history’ that is ‘both unwieldy and troubling” while “offering misrepresentations at every turn.’ As the process drew to a close, state board of education chairwoman Gail Lowe admitted that the board had failed to follow up on the college readiness effort.”
The report goes on: “Even without such a confession, the evidence of inattention to college readiness is apparent throughout the secondary standards.” Example: The SBOE-adopted curriculum guidelines “present history as a body of facts to be memorized,” thus asking students to “identify the major eras in U.S. history from 1877 to the present,” whereas the college-readiness standards ask students to “examine how and why historians divide the past into eras.”
Erekson et al. say the curriculum guidelines also “encourage one-sided analysis.” Thus, the SBOE-adopted guidelines call on students to “describe the characteristics and benefits of the U.S. free enterprise system” and to analyze the “unintended consequences” of government programs such as affirmative action. In contrast, the college-readiness standards simply ask students to “evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different economic systems.”
The Erekson report catalogues many more examples and recommends specific strategies for history teachers to use to work around the weaknesses of the curriculum guidelines. In essence, the report says, teachers should invite their students to think critically about the assumptions behind the standards themselves. Note the irony: A set of standards designed to inculcate a certain version of history becomes itself a primary source document to be examined, questioned, and best understood in its historical context.